I volunteered to join the James and Mary Walker restoration project mainly because of my lifelong interest in boats and the sea. I also hoped that I could bring some of my own experiences, as a marine engineer and a model boat maker, to the project. It was quite by chance that my wife discovered I had a far deeper connection to the James and Mary Walker than I could possibly have imagined.
A few years ago, my mother-in-law (who is a genealogist) put together my family tree for me. I was fascinated to see just how many of my ancestors had links with the local fishing industry; which carry on to the present day, with both my dad and my brother still working as fishermen out of Pittenweem. After listening to me talking about all of our plans and ideas for the James and Mary Walker project, my wife had been reading up on the boats history. Part of the story really leapt out at her - the boats long serving 2nd coxswain, Martin Gardner.
Martin Gardner was a local skipper who was on the committee tasked, in 1903, with selecting a type of lifeboat to replace Anstruther's 'The Royal Stuart'. The boat they chose would eventually be named 'The James and Mary Walker', with Anstruther's slipway being improved and a new lifeboat shed built to accommodate her. The boat served Anstruther from 1904 -1933, during which time she saved numerous lives among the local fishing community and, towards the end of her time, from steam trawlers. Throughout that time coxswain William Sutherland and Martin Gardner, by then 2nd coxswain, formed a formidable partnership with 'The James and Mary Walker' earning themselves the title 'the wooden boat with the iron men'. It was a remarkable 30 year relationship between crew and boat, unique in the stations history.
That relationship drew to a close, in 1933, with the discharge from service of 'The James and Mary Walker' and the retirement of Coxswain William Sutherland. Martin Gardner was a natural choice to replace Sutherland (or 'Scow' as he was nicknamed) and he took over as Coxswain of Anstruther's newest lifeboat, 'The Nellie and Charlie'. It must have been a proud day for Gardner, as he oversaw the naming ceremony of the new lifeboat on 21st July 1933. Around 6000 or 7000 locals packed out the harbour to watch her launch. Less than four months later Martin Gardner sadly passed away in the lifeboat shed that had been erected to house the 'wooden boat' chosen and manned by him, and his fellow 'iron men'. Over 600 members of the community followed him on his final journey, from Anstruther, to Kilrenny Churchyard.
Martin Gardner's end was a poignant one, but something about it rang a bell with my wife, Laura. Anstruther Lifeboat Station sits on what is known as The Middle Pier and it made her remember an unusual detail she had noticed in my family tree. "I remembered seeing that someone in Barry's family had died on the Middle Pier and thinking that it was an odd place to pass away. So I thought it would have been quite a coincidence for two people to have died there." said, "I was also aware that there were lots of Gardner's on Barry's mum Susan's side of the family. I had a bit of a funny hunch about it, so I decided to quickly cross reference the name and date with Barry's family tree". Laura was amazed to discover that her 'hunch' was right - my family tree did indeed contain a Martin Gardner, who died of a heart attack on the Middle Pier on 8th November 1933. However, Martin wasn't just some far flung uncle or cousin, he was my great great grandfather (my mum's dad's grandfather)! I had heard stories that some of my mum's family had been on the lifeboat crew, and still are involved in Anstruther Lifeboat to this day, but i had no idea how close that family connection actually was. I was no longer just helping to restore an old Anstruther lifeboat, this was my great great grandfather's boat.
Interestingly, our connection doesn't end there. While checking some historical information, to do with the project, recently I came across some more fascinating accounts of Martin's experiences on board the James and Mary Walker. The report of him acting as Coxswain of the James and Mary Walker during the rescue of the cargo steamer 'Chingford' in 1924, read like a word for word account of a service call on which I was helmsman on our in-shore lifeboat, and subsequently awarded the RNLI's bronze medal for gallantry. From the location and rocky situation of the stricken vessels, to the weather and tidal conditions, to the detail of the location of coastguard and even some of the language we had used to describe our actions (in particular the use of the phrase "ca' canny", meaning "take it easy") was remarkably similar. It was pretty spooky!
Another detail, as a helmsman, struck a cord with me. A quote from Alexander Doig, Anstruther Coxswain in 1958/59 (and quite likely another, more distant, relation of mine) describing one particular service call, on an incredibly treacherous day, when there were not enough oilskins onboard the James and Mary Walker for the whole crew. "William Sutherland and Martin Gardner would not put on their oilskins, and told the crew to put them on. I shall always remember them standing there, side by side, talking to the lifeboat as she sailed along. It seemed they both revelled in the performance of the boat and disregarded any discomfort they felt". That's why the restoration of the James and Mary Walker is so important. It will stand as a lasting tribute to 'iron men' (and nowadays women too) like William Sutherland and Martin Gardner, trusting in the strength of their boats and each other as they prepare to risk their own lives to save others.